Sudanese Opposition Figures Who Met U.S. Diplomat Face Trial

By Julius Mokaya | July 7, 2008 | 8:09 PM EDT

Nairobi ( -Sudan's Islamist government announced that it will bring subversion charges against seven opposition leaders who met with a U.S. diplomat late last year.

The authorities accuse the seven of planning an armed uprising against the state. They are currently being detained awaiting trial.

"There is sufficient evidence obtained from documents and from interrogation to bring them to trial this week," the state-owned al-Anbaa newspaper quoted Justice Minister Ali Mohamed Yassin as saying.

The government claims the group was being funded and given logistical support by Washington, through the influence of the visiting diplomat, in order to topple the newly re-elected government of President Omar el Bashir.

The seven, members of the National Democratic Alliance (NDA), were arrested as they met in Khartoum with Glenn Warren, a diplomat based in Nairobi in neighboring Kenya, in early December.

Warren was himself briefly held and then ordered to leave the country within 72 hours.

U.S. embassy officials in Nairobi, where most diplomatic matters related to Sudan are handled in the absence of a fully operational embassy in Khartoum, dismissed claims Tuesday that those meeting were plotting subversion.

"The Sudanese regime is looking for an excuse to silence the country's opposition and other democratic forces," a public affairs official said.

"All the Khartoum government is after is to cover up its human rights abuses through such acts. The U.S. has no interest in toppling that government, but is committed to promoting the growth of democracy," the official added.

"The U.S. State Department has said the arrests reflect Khartoum's frustration over a visit to southern Sudan by a senior U.S. official [Susan Rice], to highlight allegations of slavery in the war-torn country."

If convicted, the defendants - who include two former federal ministers, Joseph Ukel and Jimmy Wongo - face sentences ranging from 10 years to life in prison.

Analysts say the trial is likely to put more strain on the already poor relations between Sudan and the U.S.

Early this month Bashir urged President-elect George W. Bush to normalize relations by removing sanctions imposed on Sudan by the Clinton administration.

For security reasons, the U.S. does not have diplomats in Khartoum on a permanent basis, and has had no ambassador since 1997. Diplomats serve at the mission there on a rotating basis, some of them operating from Nairobi.

Washington considers Sudan a sponsor of international terrorism and imposed sanctions in 1997.

Relations deteriorated further in 1998 when U.S. aircraft bombed a pharmaceutical factory in Khartoum, alleging it was manufacturing chemical weapons and was linked to Osama bin Laden, the international terror suspect accused of planning the deadly bombings of U.S. embassies in Kenya and Tanzania several weeks earlier.

Khartoum and the plant owner said it produced only medicine.

Rebels from the non-Muslim and non-Arabic-speaking south have been fighting the government for autonomy since 1983. An estimated 2 million people have died due to fighting, diseases and hunger related to the conflict.

The U.S. is the biggest single donor of humanitarian assistance to the south, including rebel-held areas.